I was standing in front of my grandmother’s deathbed when my mother revealed the long kept family secret: Grandma, or Na, as we called her, had been a “flower girl” in her youth.
The revelation came as a shock. My beloved Na — the woman who had fed us rice and brought us up — a prostitute? That’s when my mother finally told me Na’s story. My grandmother had been orphaned at six before being adopted by her aunt. When she blossomed into a beautiful young woman at 14, the aunt’s husband sold her to a brothel. In the twenty years since I heard this story, I’ve often wondered how Na, a devout Buddhist, endured life inside a brothel called Spring Fragrance Pavilion, its front always lit up by red lanterns.
My grandma’s fate was a common one for orphans at that time when women were treated as a commodity to be bought, sold, and traded. As soon as the Chinese Communists took power in 1949, they shut down all the brothels and reformed the prostitutes. In the reform era, however, relaxed social control and growing wealth led to a spectacular resurgence in the sex trade, especially along more developed coastal areas. Working girls were hired to lubricate the wheels of business negations — or used as bribes in the trade between power and money. Since then, the sex industry has become the fastest growing industry in China, staffed by some ten million girls.
Although illegal in China, prostitution is difficult to avoid even now. Once, during a reporting trip to Shenzhen, I walked into a salon, hoping for a haircut. One of the three giggling girls, her full chest threatening to spill out of her tiny top, told me that they didn’t really know how to cut hair. I looked down and spotted no shavings on the floor; it dawned on me what kind of establishment I had actually entered. Perhaps I should have known: After all, we were in Shenzhen, referred to by some as China’s Capital of Sins.
I chatted with the salon girls and learned that they were migrants from the impoverished countryside. All three were poorly educated and unskilled: The youngest was in her early teens — the same age as my grandma when she began work at a brothel in 1928. How did these women end up here? I wondered. And how did they reconcile their trade with their conservative upbringing in the village?
It was at that moment the seed for my novel, Lotus, was planted. Through the lives of these women, I could explore China’s growing gap between men and women, urban and rural — as well as the tug of war between modernity and tradition.
Because my last book was a memoir, people often wonder if I’ve penned another autobiography: I am always quick to point out that Lotus is purely a work of fiction, not based on personal experience. Keenly aware that my middle-class urban existence is so removed from that of a migrant-worker, I knew I needed serious research. And so I interviewed sex workers in Shenzhen, Dongguang, a neighboring city, Beijing, and other cities. I tried to make friends with these sources, but it proved to be a very challenging task: Their lives are so transient, as they change from one massage parlor to another, from one city to another. They change their mobile numbers — or they simply vanish.
My breakthrough came after I managed to gain work as a volunteer for a non-governmental organization NGO that is dedicated to helping female sex workers in a northern city in China. The main task of these volunteers is to distribute condoms to sex workers operating at massage parlors and hair salons — all fronts for brothels — in an outskirt of Tianjin.
They are mostly low-class establishments, and I usually went out with a staff member from the organization, Little Y — a former sex worker herself, who is very skilled in her NGO role. She would sit down and chat over a cup of weak jasmine tea; she would always find something flattering to say.
“Wow, what a pair of heavy melons!” Little Y would say, pointing at one woman’s robust chest. “Are they real?” She would volunteer that she had had implants herself; on several occasions, she lifted up her top and compared herself to other women who also had breasts enlargement. Little Y’s augmentation was done in a back-alley clinic, and resulted in one of her nipples pointing westward.
Her language and approach made the girls feel she was one of them: They would tell her about the problems they had with their boyfriends, or some funny anecdotes about their clients, or just vent about the injustices they suffered at the hands of the police. One woman told us how she’d been arrested during a police raid: At a police station, they beat her up. To avoid being sent to a labour camp, she had to pay a bribe of 3000 yuan (almost $500 at the time) to a policeman and provide her services to him for free. Upon being released, she returned to her parlor. A laid-off worker with two children to support, she needed the money.
Little Y would offer advice how to dodge police in case their parlors were raided. When she handed out condoms, she would urge women to use one for each transaction and warn them about the dangers of unprotected sex. At night, I stayed at NGO’s office, its walls studded with heart-shaped plastic-encased prophylactics. There, I would furiously write down the details of our conversations and the stories the girls had shared with me.
Quite a few of them had experienced traumas, like losing their jobs or being deserted by their husbands. Other made a choice to become sex workers, because their other professional options were extremely limited.
The story of one massage parlor girl, Xiaohua, was typical: Lured by the bright lights of the city, she left her village of Sichuan, in China’s hinterland, and joined a shoe factory in Dongguang. One of her friends found a job at a massage parlor in Shenzhen, which would not only earn her more income but also spare her the grueling tasks of production line; she decided to to take the job after her family wrote her a letter, asking for money. Xiaohua took the job and sent the requested funds to Sichuan: Almost all girls I know provided financial support to their homes back in their villages.
Of course, it partly justified their profession and made them feel better. Still, their sense of filial duty, deeply imbedded in their upbringing, played a large part.
But what impressed me most in those vulnerable girls was their strength: their ability to cope with hardship and setbacks and simply keep going. It is the same quality I’ve long appreciated in my grandma, to whom the novel is dedicated.
Lijia Zhang is a journalist and author. Lotus, released January 10, is her debut novel.
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